The International Interplay of Online Extremism in New Zealand

5th August 2021

By Milo Comerford & Jakob Guhl

On 15 March 2019, the attack on two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand highlighted the profound impact of online extremism in the country. The subsequent Royal Commission of Inquiry on the attack painted a clear picture of a terrorist embedded within an international online extremist ecosystem, inspired and instructed by YouTube videos and extreme right-wing discussion boards.

Christchurch stands as an instructive example of an increasingly international far-right. This Dispatch examines online extremism in New Zealand, drawing on ISD research conducted throughout 2020 which provides a data-driven snapshot of New Zealand’s online extremist ecosystem. 

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The 2019 Christchurch attack was domestically devastating for New Zealand – and in particular, for the country’s Muslim community – but also  highly international in nature. The terrorist was an Australian who identified as European and who, in his manifesto ‘The Great Replacement’, cited the actions of London’s mayor Sadiq Khan and Germany’s chancellor Angela Merkel (in particular, their attitude to migration) as well as Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdogan (whom he described as the leader of Muslim migrants in Europe) as part of his justification for his violence.

Christchurch represents the most striking example of violent extremism in New Zealand. However, extremist groups in the country have attempted to mobilise their supporters for decades and continued to do so after the events of March 2019, with an outlook significantly more international than it is domestic. ISD’s recent research has found that the extreme right hold the largest and most active online extremist presence in the country, dwarfing the activities of Islamist, extreme far-left and conspiracy-based extremists like QAnon. It found that New Zealand extremists are more interested in, and engage more with, the events, personalities and affairs of the international sphere than the domestic. This research illustrates how a constellation of far-right extremist groups, ranging from anti-Muslim groups to ethnonationalists and white supremacists, present themselves as protecting New Zealand’s cultural, racial, and religious identity from perceived existential threats.

The New Zealand extreme far-right exemplifies a trend towards an increasingly international far-right movement. This has been detailed by ISD researchers in an article for the Combating Terror Center at West Point profiling Action Zealandia, a group which was founded in the aftermath of the Christchurch attacks and which takes ideological inspiration from international Identitarian and ethnonationalist groups. The great majority of the group’s ‘official’ activity is confined to the online space, which it uses to build international connections and audiences, share propaganda, gather information and learn from other white nationalist movements abroad.

While remaining firmly tied to the specificities of the New Zealand context, the group exhibits a distinct international trend through its celebration of, networking with, and taking inspiration from violent extreme right movements outside of New Zealand. This fits a growing pattern that has seen groups mobilising around highly localised grievances, while simultaneously looking outward for inspiration and connecting with like-minded ideologues across national borders. Significantly, the case of Action Zealandia provides an important insight into the dynamics of the far-right threat in New Zealand – a threat which can be alternately characterised as both domestic and international in nature.

Such far-right groups, which are intimately plugged into international extremist subcultures, can draw New Zealanders away from national context and character of their society, which is often cited by policy makers and experts as a protective bulwark against extremism: a strong and free press, a tolerant and open society, a long history of liberal values and strong institutions enshrining and protecting them. While these factors are certainly true, there is a strong countervailing trend which is also important to consider. The Internet can lift extremists out of their own domestic socio-political context, and make them angry, aggrieved and mobilised about things that are happening across the other side of the world.

 

Milo Comerford is the Head of Policy & Research, Counter Extremism at ISD, leading ISD’s work developing innovative research approaches and policy responses to extremism. Milo regularly briefs senior decision makers around the world on the challenge posed by extremist ideologies, and advises governments and international agencies on building effective strategies for countering extremism.

Jakob Guhl is a Manager at ISD, where he works within the Digital Research Unit and ISD Germany. His research focuses on the far-right, Islamist extremism, hate speech, disinformation and conspiracy theories. He is a frequent commentator on German radio and broadcast, including Deutschlandfunk, Tagesthemen and Radio Eins.

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